The 1960’s was a turbulent time in American history. Internationally, the United States was involved in the Cold War, dealing with Soviet threats, a Communist Cuba, and the Vietnam War. Domestically, American society faced pressures from a youth counter-culture that questioned both social norms and government policies, and from the civil rights movement of African-Americans and other minorities.
Acrimony and hostility punctuated the period for activists on both sides of the issues. Those who wanted to maintain the status quo often reacted with violence, which escalated the antagonism. Church bombings, civil disobedience, police brutality, protests, assassinations, and riots marked these years. In tandem with its war abroad, Americans seemed to be in a war with each other.
Seattle was no exception and felt the pressures of change. These pressures became especially acute in the later half of the sixties, as the Civil Rights movement grew. However, Seattle’s civil rights campaigns in the early 1960’s were not as visible as civil rights campaigns in other parts of the United States, such as the South, and white Seattleites continued to ignore the concerns of the city’s black population.
Yet Seattle’s African-Americans felt the same frustrations as their counterparts nationwide. By the late 1960’s this was especially true for the younger Black generation who were not only frustrated with White America, but also with the leadership of the Civil Rights movement. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC) were criticized by younger activists as elitist, dominated by highly educated lawyers and ministers, and too slow to bring change. “After the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed,” historian Dianne Louise Walker has noted, “the older civil rights section of the movement (SCLC and NAACP) became estranged from the younger activists.”
The Black community’s frustration was brought to the surface on April 19, 1967, when Stokely Carmichael visited Seattle and spoke to packed audiences at Garfield High School and the University of Washington. Carmichael was nationally known as the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee –an organization that held sit-ins, voter registration drives and other civil rights campaigns in the South— and one of the leading advocates of “Black Power.” His speech inspired young Black Seattleites as he explained Black Power philosophy. Carmichael said, “We must organize black community power to end abuses and to give the Negro community a chance to have its needs addressed.” After Carmichael’s visit, young African-Americans began to see their struggle for equality in new ways.
Many whites received Carmichael words with contempt and saw Black Power as synonymous with violent revolt. Some whites even tried to prevent Carmichael from speaking at all. However, the main objective of the Black Power movement was not about revolting against Whites, but rather about African-American self-help. Historian Quintard Taylor explains that “the premise of black power both in Seattle and nationally began with the idea that African-Americans should define and control the major institutions in their community, whose economic and political resources should be mobilized for its development and eventual parity alongside other communities.” Black Power, then, was principally about African-Americans exercising more control over their own lives.
Several Black UW students—who would later become the founding BSU members—heard Carmichael speak. In early 1968 when the BSU was founded, members like E. J. Brisker and Eddie Demming credited Stokely Carmichael for catalyzing their activism. Describing Carmichael’s impact, Eddie Demming said: “[Carmichael] had something we could identify with. He told us that things could no longer stay the same.” Thus, by the fall of 1967, the University of Washington had several politically conscious, motivated Black students. When these students looked around for an organizational base, all they found was the one Black student organization on campus, the Afro-American Student Society. Founded in 1966 by Dan Keith (an African-American) and Onye Akwari (a Nigerian), its focus was to encourage dialogue and understanding between Black Americans and Black Africans. Therefore, students like Brisker and Demming concluded, the Afro-American student Society was not an appropriate organization for political activism.
A key turning point in BSU history came in November 1967 when a group of African-American students traveled by bus to Los Angeles, California, and attended a Black Youth Conference over Thanksgiving weekend. Organized by Professor Harry Edwards of San Jose State University, the conference featured two-hundred participants, mostly from colleges and universities along the West Coast, representing various political philosophies: Black Nationalists, Black socialists, Black Panthers, United Slaves (US) and others. It was at this same conference where several prominent Black athletes, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), voted to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City to protest America’s racism. Several other issues were discussed during the conference, including the concept of Black Student Unions. After learning about these organizations, the UW students returned to Seattle intent on establishing their own BSU.
The primary mission of Black Student Unions was to serve black students’ needs on university campuses, to initiate community service projects, and organize BSUs in high schools and junior-highs. Thus, by the end of 1967, there were Black students at UW that had the awareness and motivation to address their concerns, and the program to do so. In early 1968, after returning to school from their winter break, they began their struggle.